A touch of glass
Now working in Belgium for an English-language magazine, Tippler is
ideally placed to carry on his love of beer. Here he explores the
amber-coloured world of Antwerp's De Koninck brewery and comes
away suitably impressed.....
There's only one De Koninck....
There's only one De Koninck. And there's only one brewery in Antwerp,
as I discovered during a recent visit to this atmospheric city.
This family-run business was founded in 1833 and is steeped in history.
Indeed, if you look closely at the De Koninck logo, you'll spot a hand.
This hand has a starring role in the company's story as its twin is found
on an old stone post that marked the boundary between Antwerp and
Bechem, just 100 metres from the brewery. Travellers would see the
hand, stop and pay a toll to cross into Antwerp. After years spent
gathering dust in the catacombs of the city's Vleeshuis, the original
stone post has come home and now stands in the brewery courtyard.
....people ask for a "bolleke" ....
Not only that but ask any beer drinker in Flanders or Holland what a
"bolleke" is and he will immediately associate it with De Koninck. The
bolleke is the ball-shaped, high-stemmed glass that was typically used
in Antwerp to serve any highly-fermented beer but, in Flanders
especially, people ask for a "bolleke" and specifically mean a glass of
the 5% rich amber-coloured De Koninck. The two are synonymous.
....retain a good head while setting free its heady aroma.
The glass, alongside its smaller, shorter-stemmed brother, the Pinske
(little prince) has become a much-prized collector's item among beer
buffs the world over. It, and the beer, is instantly recognisable and in
this way this small but perfectly-formed brewery, which employs just
70 people in total, has contributed to the history of its host city. Not
only that, but the Belgians, as you've doubtless noticed, like their
beer frothy.....and the bolleke's shape helps De Koninck retain a good
head while setting free its heady aroma.
....under the name of "The Hand"
The home of the bolleke began life on a very small scale in the
Plaisante Hof coach house, then located opposite a gallows field. One
Joseph Henricuss De Koninck bought the coach house in 1827 but died
soon afterwards. His wife later married Johannes Vervliet, who started
a brewery under the name of "The Hand".
By 1912 it was a limited company called "Charles De Koninck" and, in
1919, a family of brewers from Willebroek, the Van den Bogaerts,
formed a company with the then De Koninck director. To this day
members of the Van den Bogaert family run De Koninck from its
brewery in Mechelsesteenweg. Up until 1995 the bolleke and its
younger, but stronger, brother, Cuvee De Koninck (8%) were created in
the old brewhouse. This stands on the site of the original brewery and
is now a museum.
.....in these high-tech environs......
A new "21st century brewhouse", that looks like the set of a sci-fi
movie and is housed in the next building, now produces the two
beers. Also brewed in these high-tech environs is De Koninck1s third
great beer, the 6% Antoon, which was launched last year in honour of
Anthony Van Dyck, the supreme portrait artist at the court of the
Stuart king, Charles I. Van Dyck had been born in Antwerp 400 years
before. Cuvee De Koninck, on the other hand, was first launched as
Cuvee Antwerpen '93 to tie-in with the nomination of the city as
Cultural Capital of Europe in that year. It's also amber coloured.....but
is a little sweeter than the bolleke, as well as being much more
It's all a matter of taste.
Both Antoon and Cuvee De Koninck have their own loyal following and
each brew varies slightly. So, theoretically, there's no reason why beer
experts, like those of wine, can't compare bottles from different years
and, for example, ask for a Cuvee circa 97 instead of a '99. It's all a
matter of taste.
And what a taste that is! The brewhouse may be ultra-modern but the
beers smack of years of Belgian tradition. Water and malt combine in
the mash tub and the starch, released by the crushing of the malt
grains, turns to fermentable sugars. This "liquid sugar" is separated
from the solids in a filtration tank and is called "wort". The wort is
next boiled to stabilise and sterilise it. At this point ground hops are
added to create the bolleke's characteristic aroma and pleasant
bitterness. These are 90% Czechoslovakian Saaz variety hops, with the
balance coming from Belgium.
....re-activated by the brewing process.
The beer's amber colour is down to the malt barley. Years ago the
brewery had its own malt house in which the barley was sprayed with
water in order to kick-start the germination process. This forms
enzymes which are de-activated during kiln-drying then re-activated
by the brewing process.
The kiln temperature determines whether the malt will be light or
dark and De Koninck uses malt kiln-dried at high temperatures, hence
its lovely, rich colour.
These days, the malt is brought in and the Old Malt House is a cosy,
atmospheric and smoky bar used by the brewery's many visiting
But back to that all-important brewing process: once sieved, the wort
is cooled and the yeast added. De Koninck's particular strain of
yeast.....from the Saccheromyces Cerevisiae family.....is stored and
cultivated in a lab in Denmark and its presence converts the sugars to
alcohol. De Koninck is a high fermentation beer and this means that,
during the process, the yeast floats and can be recovered.
After fermentation the beer is "lagered", or chilled, and after a final
filtration is ready for barrelling or bottling. The spilt is around 70/30
respectively and bottling is done in-house.
....there's no getting away from the sign of "The Hand".
Some 15 brews take place each working week, every brew being 200
hectolitres in size. The annual total is around 114,000 HL.
Approximately 35% of this total draught and bottled-beer leaves
Belgium. While that may sound a lot, in truth most of that amount
goes just down the road to the discerning Dutch. Surprisingly, the
beer is not all that common in Brussels.....but in Antwerp there's no
getting away from the sign of "The Hand".
The two newer De Koninck beers look certain to stay around, but
there's no doubt that the original bolleke, whether on draught or in a
bottle, is far and away the most widely-drunk of the brewery's three
....certainly the best welcome possible....
All the beers are brewed using only natural ingredients and, at 5%, the
bolleke is eminently quaffable....and a glass (or three) of the
remarkable liquid was certainly the best welcome possible for this
writer's first visit to lively, historic and very, very Flemish, Antwerp.